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Tuesday, August 22nd 2006

Owen Gingerich Tells The Bad News

A recommendation by a committee at the IAU meeting in Prague would’ve kept Pluto a planet (and made a whole bunch of other smaller objects in the solar system planets as well). I posted on this previously.

However, the NYT is reporting that the full membership of IAU seems to be opposing that, at least as far as the debate is going currently. It looks like the most popular “solution” in Prague is to,

set up a three-tiered classification scheme with eight “planets”; a group of “dwarf-planets” that would include Pluto, Ceres, Xena and many other icy balls in the outer solar system; and thousands of “smaller solar system bodies,” like comets and asteroids.

The bottom line, said Owen Gingerich, the Harvard astronomer who is chairman of the I.A.U.’s planet definition committee, is that in the new definition, “Pluto is not a planet.”

“There’s not happiness all around, believe me,” he added.

The new proposal was hashed out in a couple of open meetings, the first of which was described by participants as tumultuous, and the second more congenial. Astronomers are supposed to vote on this or some other definition on Thursday, but whether a consensus is emerging depends on whom you talk to. Some astronomers expressed anger that the original definition of planet had been developed in isolation and then dropped on them only a week before the big vote. Others continued to question whether it was so important to decide the question now at all.

Well, there’s not happiness here either. Just kidding. Still, for no other reason than posterity I’d like to see them keep Pluto a planet (even though the original definition that made all those floating icy “asteroids,” “planets” wasn’t exactly ideal either. Doesn’t anyone respect the status quo anymore?!)

The debate is a long one, with plenty of resources out there for grade school kids, seeking answers, including NASA’s page. If someone had raised the possibility that Pluto wasn’t a planet when I was a kid I wouldn’t have even understood (and I went to Space Camp!). The Planetary Society contends,

[T]here is no question that if Pluto were discovered today, it would not be classified as a planet.

Haters. Or as John Scalzi says, “hayta.” Okay, that makes it sound like I know John Scalzi, or even know who he is. Still, even a cursory search of the status of Pluto may reveal this war going on – two bloggers, Scott Westerfield and John Scalzi arguing over Pluto’s status.

Scott Westerfield goes ahead and defines the battle for us and it is clear what category of plutophant I fall into.

2. The Culture Vultures

The Vultures are a hardy band of simple folk who believe that the mnemonics of their childhood are in fact the laws of the universe. Oh, sure, they make claims about “planets” being a “cultural” term, because, you know, science changes, but culture has always been the same.

The Vultures are sort of like those people who think that popular music was perfected while they were in high school, and wonder why all these new bands even exist.

So Pluto will never change in their lifetime, anymore than Supertramp can ever be replaced.

They’re happy with the current mess, thinking that as the clearly insane NILBies inflate the term “planet” to meaninglessness, the rest of culture will fearfully retreat to the warm glowing warmth of the “nine historical planets.”

That’s their new buzzword, “Nine historical planets.”

Because, like, history stops in 2006?

The Vultures seem to forget that our culture:
Once called the sun and moon “planets”;
Once called whales “fish” (see the King James and Moby Dick);
Once used the word “animal” to refer solely to non-human animals.

In all of these cases, the scientific usage ultimately won. Maybe people sometimes say, “Delta doesn’t allow animals onboard.” But asked to define animal, they’ll admit to the scientific definition after a moment’s thought. And anyone who says that whales are fish, or the sun a planet, is pretty quickly shouted down.

If scientists start saying “eight planets” a lot, so will the rest of us. We listen to scientists, at least when it comes to stuff like planets. That’s part of our, you know, culture.

In anycase, I suppose I should go start training myself – “there are eight planets in the solar system, there are eight planets in the solar system…”